The Corrupter

The sheriff is selling out the public. Do you give a darn?

Ken Jenne thinks you're an idiot. The Broward County sheriff believes us all to be morons. And if we let him stay in power after what he's done, then he's bloody well right.

Jenne, as we all know, is at the heart of one of the largest law enforcement scandals in Florida history. His underlings, while using a crime-reporting system called PowerTrac, falsified hundreds of affidavits and made up countless confessions. Why? To make it look as if the sheriff's office was clearing a whole lot more cases than it really was. The State Attorney's Office has been investigating for more than a year and has charged two deputies in the case so far.

The sheriff, who benefited politically from the rampant fraud, has been saying the PowerTrac mess was all a big shock to him. He's also claiming full responsibility for the scandal. Yet even after the arrests and the announcement that four high-ranking officers are stepping down, he remains in office.

Where's the responsibility in that?

But that isn't sleazy enough for Jenne, a long-time politician who had no police training before Gov. Lawton Chiles appointed him top cop in 1998. The man has the gall to use the scandal to grossly enrich one of his cronies, lobbyist Tom Panza. Last fall, the sheriff hired Panza at $250 an hour to cover up -- er, I mean, investigate -- the BSO scandal. Panza, whose Fort Lauderdale law firm has been paid $300,000 for its work so far, told the Sun-Sentinel that he hadn't found "one scintilla of evidence" that Jenne had done anything wrong.

Of course he hadn't. Panza wouldn't upset his good buddy Jenne, who also hired him to defend BSO against civil lawsuits filed by the families of Frank Lee Smith and Jerry Townsend, two men wrongfully convicted of murder. The Sentinel noted in its March 19 article that Panza and Jenne are old friends who were in the same Army Reserve unit three decades ago. The newspaper also raised the question of whether it was proper for Panza to investigate deputies at the same time he was defending the department in the civil cases. With the help of three "experts on legal ethics," however, the Sentinel determined there was no conflict of interest.

I agree. It's more like racketeering. The Sentinel, you see, was wearing tap shoes when it should have had on work boots (preferably with steel toes). This story needed digging, not dancing. When you examine the sheriff's relationship with Panza and consider the lobbyist's past as an influence peddler, an obvious conclusion emerges.

Jenne is utterly unfit for office.

And Panza? He shouldn't be allowed anywhere near the sheriff's office either.

For starters, the money flow between Jenne and Panza runs both ways. The lawyer has been one of Jenne's chief campaign financiers for decades, from the time Jenne was a county commissioner through his 18 years as a state senator. Panza, his law firm, family members, and close business associates pumped $15,000 into the sheriff's coffers from 1998 through 2000 alone. Among the contributors was Panza's wife, Dorothy; her catering firm, Dottie's Delight; and at least two of their children, Dana and Justin.

Called bundling, it's meant to subvert campaign finance laws that limit individual contributions to $500. And Panza has been one of its most shameless practitioners (in 1994, it was reported that his 6-year-old daughter contributed heavily to then-Gov. Chiles). Panza, though he's a Democrat, has been generous with politicians of all stripes. Since 1996, Panza and his posse have donated at least $650,000 to statewide campaigns. He's likely spent at least that much in local and federal contests as well. The largesse has paid off. Panza has made his bread and butter representing Nova Southeastern University and the taxpayer-assisted North Broward Hospital District, both jobs heavily connected to Broward's incestuous network of power brokers and politicians.

The sheriff, more than anyone else, has graciously reciprocated Panza's generosity. Back in the 1990s, when then-Sen. Jenne served as chief counsel for the hospital district, he gave Panza hundreds of thousands of dollars of public business. At the same time Panza worked for the district, he was lobbying for private health-care companies. His law firm's website explains his effectiveness: "With a well-deserved reputation as a 'powerhouse' in the legislative and governmental arena, [Panza's] extensive network and personal understanding of the political arena has resulted in significant benefits for our clients."

One client that benefited was nursing-home giant Integrated Health Services (IHS). For that company, however, Panza may have done a little too much networking. In 1999, his name was thrown around at the corruption trial of former Florida House Speaker Bo Johnson, who received more than $1 million in payoffs from companies while in office, including at least $25,000 from IHS.

Former IHS executive Linda Chichester testified at the trial -- which ended in Johnson's conviction -- that Panza played the role of middleman between the speaker and the health care company. The deal was struck, according to Chichester, on Panza's pleasure boat. Panza, who didn't return phone calls last week, denied at the time that he knew about IHS' illegal payments to Johnson (see "Capitol Offenses," May 13, 1999). The company later went into bankruptcy, and creditors accused Panza's clients of looting the firm with multimillion-dollar buyouts.

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